Female knuckleballer signs on with men’s team

VANCOUVER — Claire Eccles steps in front of the mound for a couple easy tosses before signalling she’s ready to pitch.

The catcher prepares for the delivery, neither really knowing where her knuckleball is headed.

And that’s the point.

“It’s dancing!” the catcher blurts out after snagging the ball that dipped sharply before returning it to Eccles. She flashes a quick smile and heads back to the rubber.

A member of both the UBC Thunderbirds softball team and the Canadian women’s baseball team, that knuckleball is why Eccles will be wearing another hat this summer after the Victoria HarbourCats announced Tuesday that the 19-year-old from Surrey, B.C., has joined the club for the 2017 West Coast League season.

Eccles will be the first female to compete in the 11-team circuit that’s home to mostly men’s university players from the United States and Canada, including some who have been drafted by major league clubs.

She will also be the first Canadian woman to suit up at this level.

“A hundred per cent Claire is good enough to play on our team,” HarbourCats general manager Brad Norris-Jones said in a recent interview prior to the official announcement. ”Is it going to be a challenge for Claire? Absolutely.

“We’re just going to get everyone involved and show that in 2017 this isn’t different, this isn’t weird. It’s normal.”

Eccles, who has a baseball subtly tattooed behind her right ear, was intrigued when Norris-Jones first reached out. But the left-hander, who also throws a two-seam fastball and a curve, wanted to make sure she would be getting a real shot.

Her mind immediately went to Mo’ne Davis, the first girl to win a Little League World Series game in 2014, as well as “Pitch,” the recently cancelled television drama where a woman makes the big leagues.

“I was obviously a little skeptical,” Eccles said in an interview at UBC. ”You have to wonder: ‘Is this just for their own publicity?’

“Brad said I’d get fair opportunities and it’s not just for show.”

Norris-Jones got the idea of adding a female player in January, first reaching out to some contacts in the Canadian baseball community to see if there were any viable options. Eccles’ name kept popping up.

They initially spoke on the phone before meeting for coffee.

“She was game on,” said Norris-Jones, who plans to mostly use Eccles out of the bullpen. ”I could tell in her voice she wasn’t intimidated.”

Like many knuckleballers, Eccles fell into the pitch almost by accident.

“All the kids would try and throw a knuckleball,” she said. ”I played around with it and it eventually turned into something I could use.”

Norris-Jones saw four scouting reports on the five-foot-eight Eccles, with her unpredictable pitch that moves in and out of the strike zone the main reason he believes she can succeed.

“If we strictly went on her velocity, I don’t think she could compete at this level,” he said. ”But her knuckleball definitely competes at this level.

“That’s what we were very excited about.”

Eccles’ fastball tops out at around 76 m.p.h. — for comparison, major-leaguers regularly throw in the 90s — but the knuckleball is more about minimizing spin than maximizing speed. The pitch is tricky for batters to read because of the ball’s erratic movement.

Eccles’ journey from the Little League diamonds of Metro Vancouver to the West Coast League, which has clubs in B.C., Oregon and Washington, started when she was five.

She first fell in love with the sport not on the field or in the backyard playing catch, but instead after receiving a baseball video game as a gift.

“(My parents) put me in T-ball,” recalled Eccles, who patrols the outfield, not the mound, for UBC. “It just started from there.”

Eccles, who counts Ichiro Suzuki as her sporting idol, played on boys’ teams until Grade 8 when her parents made her switch to softball.

But she then learned about the women’s provincial baseball program, which set her on a course to eventually earn a spot with the national squad at 16. She’s pitched at the last two Women’s Baseball World Cups for Canada, as well as the 2015 Pan Am Games.

Norris-Jones said Eccles will be treated like any other player on the HarbourCats, who averaged around 2,300 fans at home last season and play a 54-game schedule that begins May 30.

“I send guys out there every game that get hit around,” said Norris-Jones. ”If that happens to Claire or she strikes out the side … she’s a member of the team.”

Eccles’ goal growing up was to play in the major leagues. Not wanting their daughter’s hopes to get too high, her mom explained that wasn’t possible.

The tears soon followed.

“I don’t think she was trying to crush my dreams,” said Eccles. ”She was just trying to be more realistic.”

Playing for the HarbourCats wasn’t what she ended up setting her sights on, but now that the opportunity is here she plans on making the most of it on the field and as a role model.

“I want to get it out there that girls can play baseball,” said Eccles, who is considering massage therapy as a career. “Hopefully this paves the way for other girls in the future.”

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